Jane Austen for a new generation
The latest Jane Austen adaptation Emma is a visually pleasing, yet disappointing rendition of a novel already extensively adapted and to better effect. The costumes are flashy, the visuals are impressive, but key characters remain underdeveloped and off-putting.
The film follows Emma Woodhouse, an independent, headstrong young woman of noble birth. The self-proclaimed master matchmaker spends her days intruding on the love lives of those around her with little care for consequence. It is not long before the naivety and recklessness of her pairings blows up in her face.
Having already claimed the union of her governess Miss Taylor and successful businessman Mr Weston, Emma moves on with confidence towards the more ill-fitted pairing of her unsophisticated friend Harriet Smith and church vicar, Mr Elton. The problem is, Harriet already has a love interest, the clearly better suited and equally unsophisticated Robert Martin. In an ironic mix of inflated esteem for her friend and blatant prejudice against Mr Martin, Emma manipulates Harriet into turning down Martin’s marriage proposal and redirecting her affection towards the uninterested Mr Elton. It is this snobbery and inappropriate meddling that becomes the driving force of the story, as Emma is forced to face the consequences of her actions.
In many ways, first time feature film director Autumn de Wilde does provide a new and unique spin to the long cherished period drama, with a charming array of costumes and settings.
Unfortunately, when it comes to story, de Wilde’s innovation runs dry failing to bring anything of true importance that wasn’t already explored in previous Emma films.
Short scenes make short work of character development
While certainly managing to squeeze more of the book into the film than its predecessors, the story seems rushed, reducing scenes down to a couple of sentences and leaving little breathing room in between. The short scenes make hard work of character development and cause promising moments to fall flat. There were a couple of noteworthy scenes when pacing was slowed down enough to savour them. In particular, there is a beautifully nuanced ballroom dance between Emma and Mr Knightley, and later, a highly dramatic altercation during a friendly picnic.
Jane Austen stories are always heavily character-driven and as a result, their success on screen is very much in the hands of the cast, particularly those in leading roles. While Anya Taylor-Joy effectively captures the smug and meddlesome nature of Emma, her portrayal lacks the innocence and sensitivity brought by previous players. Without these redeeming qualities, Emma comes across as arrogant, rude and unapologetic, making her very difficult to empathise with. This is by far the greatest failing of the film.
The audience can’t identify with characters without empathy and if the audience can’t identify with the character then they won’t care about what happens to them.
Bill Nighy in a cravat
Other notable cast members include Bill Nighy, who despite being great to watch was really just Bill Nighy in period getup. The standout performers, however, were Josh O’Connor (best known for his role as Prince Charles in The Crown) and Tanya Reynolds (Sex Education). They were both hilarious and captivating whenever on screen, and their characters better defined than the protagonist’s.
The film is rated PG for mild themes, and the completely unnecessary inclusion of Johnny Flynn’s bottom in the opening scenes of the film. If that doesn’t put you off then the rest of the film is reasonably family-friendly.
For Jane Austen fans this film is still a must see, if for no other reason than to experience a luxuriously produced and flamboyant presentation of what is still a very good story.
Lastly, like all Jane Austen works and adaptations, the film does explore a number of themes relevant to Austen’s era, particularly commenting on the repercussions of pride and vanity, the limitations of women, the dynamics of social class and the dangers in misperception of self and others. Unfortunately, potency is lost by the film’s inability to fully capture its audience.